Saying no: Improve assertive communication to reduce stress


November 09, 2018 - Gini Beqiri

It's important to communicate your needs and views at work but many people find this difficult because they may come across as either too passive or aggressive. The consequences of this poor communication can increase stress levels. In this article we explore assertiveness, with a focus on "saying no".

What is assertiveness

Assertiveness is when you confidently express your needs and opinions in a fair, honest and calm way whilst considering the needs and views of other people. It’s an important skill that reduces stress because it allows you to:

  • Stand up for yourself
  • Say "no" without feeling guilty
  • Express your wants, needs and opinions
  • Maintain self-control
  • Judge the situation and be assertive only when it’s appropriate

The three communication types

There are three different types of communication styles:

Passive Assertive Aggressive
Not saying what you think Expressing yourself clearly and confidently Shouting, aggression
Scared to speak up, others attack you Speaks openly and honestly Interrupts or talks over others, attacking
Avoids eye contact Maintains eye contact Stares, looks judgmentally
Speaks softly Speaks firmly and at conversational level Speaks loudly
Reduces your self-esteem Increases your self-esteem Reduces others’ self-esteem
Gives in Compromises Takes
Believing that your own needs don’t matter Believing that everyone’s needs are important Believing that your needs are the most important
Unable to say "no" - you feel guilty if you do Says no in an appropriate fashion Says no in an angry and reactive way
Makes body smaller e.g. slouches Relaxed and welcoming posture Closed posture, makes body bigger, invades personal space

For example:

A colleague approaches you and asks if you can attend a meeting in their place because they’ve double-booked themselves but you have a list of work you need to urgently get through that day.

An aggressive person: "Absolutely not. You always do this! You need to learn to manage your own workload rather than bothering me!"

A passive person: "Yeah of course I will."

An assertive person: "Unfortunately I can’t attend the meeting because I’ve got lots of work to get through today, perhaps there’s someone else you can ask."

Assertive communication in a conversation

Tips on assertive communication

  • Ensure that you tell the other person how you feel.
  • Listen (actively) to what the other person says and empathize.
  • Accept positive and negative feedback respectfully.
  • Speak at a normal conversational volume.
  • Sound firm but not aggressive.
  • Maintain eye contact.
  • Use "I" statements to get your messages across firmly, such as, "I want". Aggressive statements tend to begin with "you".
  • Avoid words that exaggerate, such as, "always" and never". For example, say "This is the third time this week you've delegated your work to me", rather than "You always give me your work."
  • Use facts rather than judgements, such as saying "This article has information about X missing" rather than "You've done a bad job again."
  • Use clear-cut verbs so your message gets across, for instance, instead of saying "could" or "should" you can say "will", rather than using "need" you can say "want". For example, "I want to attend this conference because..."

Examples of assertiveness:

  • "I currently can't take on any extra projects. My calendar is full for the next month."
  • "I understand what you're saying, but I disagree..."

Saying "no" to people

Many employees struggle to say no when they are given additional tasks because we like to please and be seen as capable. But if you have too many demands and no more capacity available you should say no.

Try not to feel guilty because it means that someone else can dedicate the right amount of time and attention to the task. Assertiveness can be used in a variety of ways to confidently and reasonably say "no".

The effects of not saying "no"

  • If you always agree to tasks when you actually want to decline then you're likely to feel angry towards the other person even though they haven't done anything wrong.
  • You may become gradually more frustrated with yourself.
  • By taking on more demands than you can cope with you become overwhelmed and very stressed.
  • This can all lead to experiencing depression and/or anxiety.

Unhelpful beliefs prevent you from saying "no"

As you grow up your experiences teach you that you can't always decline requests. You may end up with unhelpful beliefs about saying "no" which increase the difficulty of you saying it. For example, you may think that saying "no":

  • Is rude and hostile
  • Is against my belief of always trying to please everyone
  • Will upset others
  • Is nasty and selfish
  • Will cause them to dislike me

Helpful beliefs

Consider these beliefs if you've noticed you experience any unhelpful ones holding you back from declining requests:

  • By saying "no" I'm declining the request and not rejecting the person.
  • When I say "yes" to one thing, I'm actually saying "no" to something else.
  • I have the right to share my opinions even if they differ from others'.
  • The other person is unlikely to take it badly and they'll most likely understand.
  • If people have the right to request, I have the right to decline.

The Art of Saying No: Kenny Nguyen at TEDxLSU

Noted entrepreneur and presentation expert Kenny Nguyen passionately speaks about the power inherent in saying "no." The CEO of Big Fish Presentations, Kenny speaks about how "no" has affected him personally and professionally, but more importantly, how it can prepare one for the perfect time to say yes.

Six ways of saying "no"

The psychologist Trevor Powell describes six ways of saying no - you choose which one to use depending on the situation:

1. The direct "no"

When you’re asked to do something you don’t want to do or you can’t do you just say "no" e.g. "I can’t do that." The aim is to say "no" without feeling that you have to apologize. It’s the other person’s responsibility so don’t feel like you have to take responsibility for it.

2. The reflecting "no"

This is when you acknowledge the content and sentiments of the request and then assertively refuse at the end.

  • "I understand that you want me to be there but I can’t attend."

3, The reasoned "no"

This is where you provide a brief but honest reason for your answer.

  • "I can’t attend the meeting because I have lots of deadlines this week so I have no time."

4. The raincheck "no"

This is not an absolute "no" - it’s a way of saying no to the request currently but means you can say yes in the future. You should only use this if you want to genuinely meet the request.

  • "I don’t have time today but I could make sometime next week."

5. The enquiring "no"

This is again not an absolute "no". In this technique you open up the request to see if there is an alternative.

  • "My schedule is full for today, maybe there’s someone else in the team that could help?"

6. The broken record "no"

If the person initially does not accept your "No", then keep repeating yourself. It can be used in a wide range of situations and it is especially useful for persistent requests.

  • Requester: "Could you please take my place in the meeting today?"
  • You: "Unfortunately I can’t attend the meeting because I’ve got lots of work to get through today, perhaps there’s someone else you can ask."
  • Requester: "I’ve asked a few people already, maybe you could just go for the first half an hour?"
  • You: "I know that it’s important but I won’t be able to go this time as I really need to finish this work today and I don’t have any spare time."
  • Requester: "Not even for 15 minutes?"
  • You: "I need all my time to focus on this work."

Remember that you have the right to voice your opinions and if you really struggle to say "no" it’s likely that you’re overestimating the difficulty the other person will have in accepting your refusal.